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This is where most backpackers start and for good reason. There's plenty to see/do, life's fun, cheap, easy and fairly safe. There's however something clichéd about the region and many grow tired of the crowds while a certain type of backpacker keeps coming back. Nonetheless, miss the likes of Thailand's beaches, Angkor and the Philippines at your peril.
Remember what follows are only basic snapshot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us, it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on, have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a good way to say thank you (if you have been helped out); to see why click here.
Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region
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Hot Topic: As many do now know, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and many seem to be put off exploring since the two Bali bombings and other incidents such as small attacks on cafés in Jakarta. Don't be. With the same commonsense that needs applying everywhere, there is no problem (with terrorism at least; there are always dangers wherever you are, from buses, boats, etc). At the time of the bombings, some governments advised not travelling to Bali (even South East Asia) - crazy advice. Not spending any time in Kuta or Jakarta is better advice - bomb or no bomb! No tourism will literary kill many parts of this nation. Indonesia is not the Middle East or anything like it. It is undoubtedly South-East Asian in feel.
Highlights: Central Sulawesi, Eastern Indonesia (Flores among others), scope to explore away from crowds plus trekking/beach opportunities. Dragons at Rinca rather than Komodo. Parts of Bali, surfing and of course the Borobudur and other stupas in Central Java (Yogyakarta and around).
Lowlights: Jakarta, Medan, Kuta (Bali)
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Sumatra is right on the equator - so often hot or wet, but mountains can be quite cold and snow can be found on peaks in central Irian Jaya. The seasonal variations between wet and dry are a little varied for different parts of the country and you are best to consult a more detailed guide book, but generally speaking travel is fine all year round and wet season downpours last only a few hours. Even the driest periods seem damp, hot and humid in most parts.
Typical tourist trail: A popular stop for many looking to explore SE Asia away from the mainland. Cheap and easy budget airline flights from Singapore to Surabaya, Jakarta and Bali aid traveller-traffic. Relatively few make the journey overland from the SE Asian mainland, but it is quite easy and Bali with its international airport and paradise invoking name is clearly the main tourist point.
Most starting from Bali will either stay there (there is plenty to see/do) or take a ferry to the tiny Gilli isles or Lombok. The more adventurous will take trips either overland or by air to Flores where Komodo dragons can be seen nearby or arrange a trip to one of the temples or volcanoes in Java. Very few take in Jakarta for good reason or other more remote islands (also for good reasons: effort and time required). At the other end of the country Sumatra hosts the steady stream of travellers that come from the South East Asian mainland and with progress in Aceh some travellers are finding long forgotten gems in that region which are widely publicised in guides.
Getting off the beaten track: With such a vast area, getting off the beaten track is easy given the right amount of time and money. One such area is the Bird's Head Peninsula of West Papua, the Indonesian part of New Guinea (aka Irian Jaya), for which Marc Todts has contributed an excellent summary - click here to see it.
Costs: Endless troubles ensure the Rupiah is excellent value; prices vary from island to island but are always reasonable. $25 a day is no problem. A long stay in resort towns in Bali (such as Kuta and around), yacht tours to islands (such as to see Komodo Dragons) or similar can increase this significantly.
Money: ATM's commonplace in populous or tourist areas and in most cities and islands, take supply of cash out to further islands with you.
Getting around: Getting around depends on the island. On major islands such as Java or anywhere tourists normally go, it's a breeze. Off the beaten track in Kalimantan or West Papua there are few roads and options are more limited.
In general transportation is by buses some good, others not so. Between backpacker centres there is a well developed network of tourist buses and for a premium you can have comfort and direct routing. Prices are many times greater than local buses, but still cheap and save a lot of time and hassle. However in times of reduced tourist numbers, some services are suspended and off the beaten-track you just won't find them.
Train services available only in Java and parts of Sumatra. Several trains run between Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya. Most trains are comfortable (AC sleepers), however prices for different classes and trains vary enormously.
Boats to get from island to island. Since you have to cross water, travel can be time consuming. PELNI, the state owned shipping company has numerous vessels, operating on about two week loop schedules. Ships are AC and first class cabins have TV and privacy. Timetables on line. There are places on yachts, normally heading from Bali to Komodo. Off the beaten track, inter-island exploring can be expensive and time consuming especially in Maluku (spice islands).
Air, considering the difficulties and expense with getting far afield, internal flights become a very attractive option with an excellent network and some mainstream budget airlines. Some local airlines have questionable safety records.
Guide book: Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides and details on the LP, please click here.
Locals: Vary from island to island. Few would say that Indonesians are unfriendly, but this is far from a 'land of a thousand smiles'.
Other travellers: If you are a European, imagine Ibiza, if you're an American, imagine Cancún. This is how many (a particular type of person) see Bali. Outside Bali, typical South East Asian travellers. In many parts of Indonesia you will find yourself happily alone.
Tourist factor: Bali and surrounding islands are extremely well trodden - 9/10, most other areas 7/10 - 5/10.
Many of Indonesia's nicer destinations are slowly finding their way into the mainstream with more tourists and better connections in the same way as the Thai islands. A perfect example are the tiny Gilli Islands off Lombok, once an off-the-beaten track reserve of backpackers and a solid feature on the South East Asian trail. These islands despite being fairly close to Bali required a lengthy (long day) journey from Bali to Lombok, bus within Lombok and then second ferry. The three islands had rustic accommodation, perfect beaches and were a true get away from the worst of Bali.
Today the islands are accessible with ease by direct (although expensive) fast boats making even day trips possible and are suffering the same fate as parts of Bali. Such is unfortunately synonymous with not just Indonesia, but the whole of South East Asia which one day might look like Pattya, Puket or Kuta everywhere there is a nice beach and easy connections.
Still such notes sound sour and there is always fresh ground to be broken in South East Asia and especially elsewhere.
Accommodation: Accommodation can be basic on remoter islands and quality/price can depend largely on demand (season and local holidays/travellers). For the most part you can find somewhere to stay cheaply and with ease.
Hot water: Won't be available in cheaper rooms
Average cost: As little as US$5, average US$10. AC will increase this substantially.
Communications: Internet on most main islands, including some very fast connections and Wi-Fi in many mid-range hotels and cafes/restaurants - especially in parts of Java and Bali.
Books: Many bookshop in Bali and major towns in Java and Sumatra. Wide-range of international magazines also easy to find.
TV: In more expensive hotels. Movies played in restaurants and bars in tourist areas
Food: Indonesian cooking is distinct within the region and good street food is easy to find. Chicken, shrimp and peanut sauces feature heavily. Eating decently is never really a problem and fresh fruit juices are abundant (including avocado with chocolate sauce).
Vegetarians: Fine, look for 'temple meat' which is Tofu or Gado-gado which is a traditional dish of vegetables served with a peanut sauce. It should be noted that strict vegetarians will struggle as prawn/shrimp is used as a base for many sauce and prawn crackers are often added to the top of dishes. You can find some vegetarian restaurants and Ubud (central Bali) in particular will cater to all diets including vegans and health freaks.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Can be hard work with tons of hassle in major tourist destinations especially in Bali. More relaxed off the beaten track.
Women alone: Normally okay, be careful and remember this is a Muslim nation. Mild harassment is common, but not a major problem. It's easy to say you are married and dress a little conservatively.
Alcohol and the rest that'll kill you: Depending on island, soft drugs easily available, although in the likes of Kuta (Bali) a little too easy and questions are raised as to just how safe it is buying off the street. In addition, magic mushrooms can be found with ease in the wet season and feature on many Bali menus year-round, if that's your bag.
Intro: Malaysia (coupled with Singapore) is one of the most pleasant, hassle-free countries to visit in South-East Asia. It can be described as buoyant and wealthy with a cultural infusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that you just don't get in Thailand. The peninsular has good transport, jungle, beaches, culture and is a good chance to escape some of the Thailand crowds. Most travellers zip through, which is why others say that it is SE Asia's hidden jewel (although others might label it as dull after a long stay in Thailand/Indochina). East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) is the 'Borneo' travellers speak of and is agruably more adventurous and fun. Malaysia is fairly developed and easy to travel in, but nowhere as exotic, unhinged or cheap as the likes of Indonesia or Thailand. Most visitors tend to stick to the big city lights of Kuala Lumpur (KL) or the colonial Penang and Cameron Highlands Hill Stations or the stunning (but slightly upmarket, however managed development (Thailand take note)) Langkawi.
Despite the very obvious attractions of the [Malaysian] peninsular, for many without the temples, bargain prices and nightlife of Thailand/Indochina, the favoured destination is the island of East Malaysia, which a offers the best of Malaysia: wildlife, caves, longhouses and Mt Kinabalu.
Highlights: Islands of Perhentian, Kecil (small) considered better than the Besar (big) - however both now becoming big touristic areas with package accommodation and so on. A trek in Taman Negara National Park, Niah Caves (East Malaysia), and climbing Mount Kinabalu (East Malaysia)
Locals: You notice instantly that Malaysians are a lot more diverse and more open than their Thai neighbours (in a genuine way at least - not only of you are buying something from them.
Other travellers: Typical backpacker types. Many older travellers.
Tourist factor: 7/10
Accommodation: You can find a cheap bed almost anywhere (except resort islands that have gone very up market). In tourist/transit bus and train stations, touts come with a photo and map of the guesthouse they represent. On beaches, Thailand style A-frame huts are hard to find and most accommodation is more expensive and aimed at package tourists. If you want an ultra cheap time on a picture perfect developed beach, head to the Philippines, Indonesia or Thailand. Nevertheless quality does make up for the higher prices in many instances.
Hot water: Fine, limited in jungle areas and ultra cheap places.
Average cost: $15-20 (up to $30 in KL or Langkawi)
Communications: Widespread Internet
Media: New book shops in very civilised KL, no real traveller scene, so limited second hand books, but plenty first hand.
Food: Normally pretty good, standard fare.
Vegetarians: Fine, good variety
Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
Women alone: Not really a problem
Intro: How things have changed in and with Burma. Years back and long before presidents of the USA were visiting, simply asking questions about on newsgroups/internet forums would have had you shouted down on ethical grounds of visiting and in so supporting an oppressive regime. Now more and more people are discovering one of Asia's hidden jewels, with tourism growth at record levels and real change happening with the country's leadership. Burma or Myanmar (Me-an-mar) - which we should probably now refer to it by - is a land of wonders, gentle culture and welcoming smiles.
With the new found political acceptability of tourism, relaxed sanctions and [slow] process of change, there is no doubt that tourism will rocket in Burma over the coming years. Possibly filling sleepy historic towns and villages with ugly concrete hotels, bars selling 'buckets' to gap-years and locals become tourist jaded. If you have not visited Burma and enjoy the vibe of travel in South East Asia - get there as soon as you can.
Highlights: Bagan (Pagan), the people and 'removed from the west' culture. Getting off the tourist trail
Lowlights: Government travel restrictions, ignorant package and other tourists unaware of the current situation
Getting there & around:
Getting around: By road, getting south or west of Rangoon or to the far north is difficult and will require some serious adventure, normally riding in trucks. To avoid very bumpy and windy buses or pick-up truck rides, split the cost of a taxi, between four. Boat travel is available from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa. There are trains, but service is bad and foreigner pricing funds the regime and make buses better value.
Getting there: Air Asia is probably the cheapest route in from Bangkok or KL though you may get a good deal with Thai or other airlines for the long haul trip. There are now connections from Kunming to Mandalay and from October Air Asia will fly Bangkok to Mandalay which allows you to do a loop rather than backtracking to Yangon. Other options are from Bangladesh, Delhi and Singapore.
It's now possible to go by road from Tachilek (opp Mae Sai) to Kengtung. Permits are not needed, just the full visa. Getting to Taunggyi and on to Mandalay on via this means is open to which report you read - knowing Burma, I wouldn't bank on doing it - this is the Shan State and to leave the country this way would require a permit for the area. The road is in bad condition and the trip takes a good while and energy.
SLOWLY Myanmar is changing for the better. In November 2010 the regime held a general election, admittedly heavily circumscribed but the first in two decades. It then released the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. A formal transfer from military to civilian rule took place in 2011. No one doubts that the soldiers are still in charge, but things are changing... for the better it is hoped.
In 2012 after almost 60 years Coca-Cola went on sale again in Burma. Change, for sure. For the better?
Admission fees are omipresent in Burma and almost all funds go to the government. Think about what you want to see, for example, the Mandalay Palace is a non-event and the moat was reputedly drained with slave labour. Remember your entry fee money could be going to the government, a lot of sights are not worth seeing and fees can be avoided (give your money to beggars or other numerous mendicant members of the population, if you have an ethical problem with dodging fees).
Myanmar has international ATMs in
every tourist destination (Yangon, Bago, the Golden Rock,
Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan. You should also take a little cash and make sure any you carry is USD cash in MINT CONDITION –
this is covered in detail in the LP and cannot be stressed enough.
Some banks in Yangon and Mandalay accept Euros and the Singapore Dollar but USD is definitely the safest option.
Traveller's cheques are pretty useless. Kyat from an ATM make live much easier that in days gone by.
In the past you had to change USD (around 200) into Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) when you enter the country - this is no longer enforced. The FEC rule has been abolished, but they are still legal tender (at less than face value) and officials may keep up pretences for all those bribes to keep flowing in. The FEC desk at the airport is now closed most of the time.
Locals: Incredibly friendly and welcoming, hard not to feel sorrow for their situation
Other travellers: Some awful package tourists, others generally nice guys. In recent years much more of an overflow of the banana pancake crowd.
Guide book: Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please click here. Remember you won't find a Burma section in the Rough Guide SEA guide. Another up to date guidebook on the market is the Insight guide to Burma, published Dec 04 (LP: Nov 05).
Accommodation: Many guest houses and hotels, try to find those that are locally owned. Many places are empty, so always bargain - you can get a good room for $10-$15. Prices are more expensive in Yangon, yet there are plenty of cheap rooms available.
Hot water: Can be a problem
Average cost: $20-30
Books: Some copies of Burmese Days floating around in Bagan, which is a good, if somewhat depressing read. There are, of-course, numerous great books written on the struggle for democracy in Burma, but these are best read before you go and not while there for obvious reasons. One to read on your trip might be, The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire. It's a mixture of a travelogue and historical book about Burma, the historical bit focusing on a explorer type called George Scott, (who brought his beloved game of football to Burma) about 100 years ago. It's a great read. The ISBN is 1582432422.
Food: Pretty limited, but if you find it real Bamar food is great and as good as Thai food. Western style food is not done very well.
Hassle and annoyance factor: There are plenty of things to get annoyed about, but the people themselves are never a concern. Very friendly laid back culture
Women alone: Fine
Miss at your peril: Bagan, people, culture and getting off the beaten track in Myanmar - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Intro: Many say the Philippines just isn't South East Asia. Sure it's the only Catholic country in the region, an island nation (over seven thousand of them) which can't be 'just popped over the border to', English is widely spoken and of course it sits well away from a mainland and off any practical route. In fact the Philippines is every bit South East Asia - all the good bits. Great beaches, dramatic volcanoes, a colourful transport system, diverse culture, hill tribe & jungle treks and stunning rice terraces. The only thing that really sets the Philippines apart from the likes of Thailand et al. is in comparison you'll have much of it to yourself. Forget Vietnam this, or Malaysia that, you can keep them all because when you've seen the rest, head to the Philippines. The Philippines is ultra diverse, there's something for pretty much everyone (from swimming with Whale Sharks, cheap diving and forgotten beaches to good surfing, even better nightlife, hill tribes; the list goes on). Very civilised in parts, fair value for money (when the Peso is weak) and the fact English is widely spoken is a massive bonus for many. Sometimes it seems the only ones who have discovered these beautiful islands are the Koreans/Japanese and the sizable number of westerners who have settled and walk around with a Filipino on their arm. Alex Garland's a huge fan and so will just about anyone who's been. Mabuhay!
Highlights: Great nightlife (cheap beer, a young vibe and plenty of excellent live music), undoubtedly some of the world's best beaches (some maybe crowded, but with a little time and travel you can find your own paradise), underwater gardens (for divers and non-divers alike, the coral and many wrecks are stunning - great value scuba), trekking (there are many volcanoes to climb, but most require a good deal of planning and determination, however the highland areas of Luzon are easy to explore, stunning and relative uncrowded), fantastic food options, countless vast shopping malls and that Latin fire 'stroke' Asian grace of the long suffering Filipino. Other places of note: Vigan, around Banaue, Sagarda, Bohol and anywhere offering a cold San Miguel and a massage on a white beach at sunset.
Lowlights: The jury's still out on Boracay, beautiful as it may be, some find it just too developed and expensive when compared to other options (still others love its choice of bars/restaurants/hotels, amazing beaches and kite surfing). Damaged coral and lengthy bus journeys where air/sea is not at option. Manila makes a good first impression on few (although it has plenty to offer) and urban areas do seem forlorn compared to the dynamism of modern Bangkok/KL. In places, like in Thailand, sex tourism is obvious and can leave a bad taste in the mouth if you come across it. Finally not all, but some boats are obviously overloaded and not for the faint hearted in rough seas.
Visa strategy: A three week visa is free on arrival for most nationalities. Extensions allowing you a total stay of two months cost around US$30 in Manila, Boracay, Cebu and many other places. Unless you are getting someone to organise it for you the hassle is less in the likes of Boracay or Baguio. Second extensions are more costly and regulations get stricter the longer you stay.
Hiking: The mountains and rice terraces of north Luzon are a worthwhile alternative to the over-commercialised hill tribe treks of northern Thailand. Banaue/Sagarda can be somewhat of a pain to reach, so you will probably want to make the most of your time there with a two to three day DIY trek. When it comes to the most attractive (and therefore most popular routes) guides can easily be arranged, but not as essential as locals will tell you the way. You will find some basic places to stay if making a loop from the spectacular terraces in Batad. Private transport is however necessary in many cases are public jeepneys are not so common on the more remote roads. Away from mountain provinces, hiking needs plenty of stamina and even more water as it's going to be hot.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot almost all year around, there is however a highland area to escape to where, in winter months, it can get fairly chilly.
Typical tourist trail: Virtually all flights land in Manila (although you can enter the country in Cebu or regionally at the ex. USA airbase of Angeles/Clark - 2-4 hours North of Manila). Manila like any big Asian city has nightmare traffic and heavy pollution. From there on, there is no tourist trail as such. Many travellers will leave by air for Cebu (onto Bohol) or Boracay. Many will bus north to Baguio and onto Banaue and further north. For those on limited time the closest resort/dive site is Puerto Galera.
Costs: US$25-40, depending on your passion for Scuba, beer and AC rooms. Heading into rural areas you will be hard pushed to spend even half of this.
Money: ATMs plentiful in any large town. However don't get caught out by lack of ATMs at Clark Airport (where inter-regional budget flights sometimes land and you'll need some cash for the two-four hour bus ride to Manila) and on Palawan. Most hard currency will change in big cities and tourist enclaves. US dollars as good as Filipino Peso.
There are problems in the Philippines that are occasionally splashed across western media. In a very simplistic form problems emanate from the large southern island of Mindanao which is the country's largest Muslim enclave. Travel in some parts of Mindanao is safe, but anyone heading this way will of course do some careful research, since there have been several kidnapping incidents of late.
Swimming with Whale Sharks: Just off the coast of a small village called Donsol is one of the only places in the world where Whale Sharks can be anything close to guaranteed and where, if you want, you can swim with them (scuba not allowed). Donsol is about an hour or two south, of Legazpi, about 14hrs bus trip from Manila, or by ferry head to Masbate Town (three sailings a week from Cebu (overnight)), connect to smaller craft (1hr) and then less than 30mins to Donsol. All trips must be arranged through a government-run centre (15mins past Donsol)). They are the only people who can arrange a boat and crew. You can rent mask, snorkel, etc. You have to pay a registration fee and the whole experience will set you back something like US$70 per person (based on two sharing - cheaper if more). The price is more likely to go up than down in the future and you are by no means guaranteed to see anything.
PADI courses and dive trips are available in all tourist beach resorts, Puerto Galera being a great place to get certified. A PADI 3/4 day course will cost between US$250-300, instruction can be found in most European languages, Japanese/Korean without problem. Dives including equipment run at around US$25-35. Coral will look damaged in some places, but for the most part you will be spoilt, especially if you are keen to travel a little away from big resorts. There are also some great wreck dives. Diving is to the Philippines what trekking is to Nepal. It's cheap, easy and some of the worlds best.
What to buy: The Filipino obsession with 'malling' takes many visitors by surprise. This may be one of the best performing economies in the region and the retired colonial power of America obviously has a huge influence but still the malls of Manila and a few other places are huge (even by American standards), ultra-numerous and of an amazing variety. Shops range from local clothing discounters up through Filipino retailers like Oxygen, Bench and Human, onto international brands such as Top Shop, Gap, Zara and M&S, right up to the likes of North Face, Armani, Diesel and Ralph Lauren - to name a few. Basically everything is here and it's all excellent value.
It's really not possible to cover the many sea options in a small summary like this, so this is only a quick guide. For short hops to popular destinations there are excellent larger fast boats. For cheaper travel there are slower big boats. For less popular crossings, smaller fast sealed inland waterway type boats (like Cambodian inland fast ferries) and much slower open air large out-riggers. The worst are the smaller fast boats, but they are normally only used for short crossings. These are normally close to overloaded and not really recommended for rough seas.
Guide book: Both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide have good looking and fairly new guides out. Neither is that good. Used the Rough Guide only a few months after it was published and it was full of errors. Still, the context chapters were excellent and the quality and accuracy was found to be better than the LP counterpart. Philippines chapters in SEA multi-country guides are very poor. See more info on Rough Guide Philippines, which is the recommended guide, click here. Using this site to buy through Amazon contributes massively to its continuation.
Locals: Although English is an official language, don't expect every local you meet to be 100% proficient, although the basic understanding most have and the excellent understanding many have, makes for good interaction and ease of travel. Apart from a few exceptions, the Filipinos are a very friendly and welcoming bunch in a way you would never find in the Western world.
Other travellers: Few of the typical SE Asian backpackers and fewer of the younger crowd or Israelis you find in Thailand. Many westerners travellers are those with Filipino wives/girlfriends/kids. Popular destination for Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans, many of whom honeymoon or learn English here.
Accommodation: Accommodation and cost vary substantially. It's fair to say there is not the quantity and/or range of accommodation as in other parts of SE Asia, although there is enough. Costs tend to be slightly higher, but if you want to go basic there's plenty and the prices are rock bottom. Manila has only a few traveller-focused guesthouses, recommended highly in guidebooks and almost always fully booked. There are other options such as the good value mid-range hotels in the Manila district of Malate if you crave AC. Beach resorts have plenty of fancy accommodation geared at Japanese and Korean holiday makers. In resorts good value low/mid-range places aren't too plentiful or great value, but can be found. As with anywhere if you want AC you dearly pay for it. Off the beaten track accommodation gets much more basic, but is really cheap. As in Indonesia the mayor or village chief of small out-of-the-way places may be able to help you find a place to stay when there is no hotel.
Hot water: Not always in cheap places.
Average cost: From as little as US$5 in the north to on average US$15 to US$25.
Communications: Easy cheap internet access almost everywhere and some good call centres in major cities. Mobile phone use is widespread (Filipinos are text mad) so SIM cards are cheap and easy to buy. On the beaten track and major beach resorts, Wi-Fi spots are easy to find.
Tourist factor: 6/10, most visitors limit themselves to resorts such as Boracay.
Intro: Singapore is really just a transit zone for backpackers, on their way to the beaches of Thailand, Malaysia, the myriad of Indonesian islands or Australia. It is also quite a bizarre place (coming from the rest of Asia); cars use their indicators and stop at crossings! There's none of that mayhem that makes travel so interesting (and at times stressful) in the rest of Asia. It is an expensive place by neighbouring country standards, but cheaper than Japan, Australia or Korea. For its size there's loads to do but, being such a small place, after a few days (unless hitting the shops big time) you'll probably want to move on. What strikes you most is the Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions that seem to blend into the city. In the morning you could be on a market stall eating noodles as in Vietnam and in another part of town find Indian temples as in Madras. Then its high tea in the best British fashion with air-con, starched linen table cloths and gliding waiters. If you want 'it's a small world' Asia without breaking too much of a sweat, here's your place.
Highlights: Zoos (there are two, a day one and a night one) and cleanliness. Amazing, brilliantly tasty, safe and cheap food from every Asian (or Western) cuisine you can imagine. Shopping, drinking Singapore Slings and marveling at it all while kicking back for a few days with zero hassle and everything you might need.
Lowlights: Raffles, electronic goods prices not too different than home (electronics usually aren't the bargains they used to be), costs and accommodation prices.
Visa strategy: Free on arrival - varies 14/30/90 days depending on citizenship and/or point of entry
Dangers: Super-safe and mega-clean. This is one place you do not want to break the law, and they have some strange ones
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Very hot almost all year around - avoid the wet, humid season
Costs: US$35-50, depending on your alcohol consumption. Slightly less expensive than the USA and certainly western Europe, but hugely more expensive than say Indonesia
Money: ATMs extremely plentiful along with change places
Getting around: Fantastic public bus system. Trains to Malaysia, ferries to Indonesia. The MRT is one of the best metro-systems in the world and the budget airlines operating from Johor Bahru, just across the border, and from Changi airport will take you all over Asia and to Darwin (Australia) at real bargain prices (see budget airlines in the links section).
Guide book: Make some notes from someone else's guide or photocopy a few pages. No real need for a guidebook, other than an address of a place to stay when you first arrive. All major hostels provide great info. Local guidebooks and maps can be picked up with ease cheaply or free from tourist info places.
Locals: Highly multi-ethnic population, some of whom are not too jolly (Chinese). Very helpful in general, although a bit paranoid at times.
Other travellers: Typical SE Asian teens & backpackers on transit between Asia and other parts of the world. Plus a fair amount of older travellers stopping off between Australia and Europe and an ever increasing number of Asian tourist.
Tourist factor: 6/10
Many thanks to Tjerk Jan Schuitmaker for his recent updates and insights.
Miss at your peril: 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - the perfect place to start (despite the crowds, senseless development in places and proportion of idiot/pervert visitors)
There is, however much more to discover in Thailand apart from beaches and bars. Since it's easy to get around you've no excuse not to take the time to explore before being tempted by the likes of 'full moon parties' and neighbouring countries.
Lowlights: Crowds (Pattaya, Phuket, Ko Samui, Phi Phi), hill tribe treks (around Chang Mai), crowded beach resorts, full moon parties (Ko Pha Ngan) and many of the other travellers visiting. See 'A pinch of salt' text above.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot and humid most of the time of the year, best during Nov/Dec/Jan, but this is equally the most crowded time (then it's always tourist central). March to May is extra sticky with 35C the norm. Summer (July/August) is still hot and technically wet season, but not a major hindrance to travel.
Costs: Pretty good value, $30-50 per day, much more if you like to party since beer is quite expensive comparative to the cost of living. It needs to be stated that Thailand has become much more expensive in the past few years. Major resorts have long been more expensive, but now many more places are catching up. Rural Thailand still remains cheap, but on the tourist trail costs are rising and numerous temptations burn money fast. Those coming from Indochina, Nepal/India or Burma might find Thailand a little (and only a little) pricey - though it's still good value by western standards.
Visa strategy: Simply speaking there are two main types of tourist visa for Thailand, but entry requirements do vary for citizens of different countries as you would expect. Generally speaking, if coming from the EU, Israel, North America, Australia or another developed country, two main methods of entry are available for travellers...
1. Many opt for the conditional 30 day visa exemption stamp on arrival. One of the conditions is that you must be able to prove that you're leaving Thailand by air within 30 days of your arrival. Technically you may need to show the immigration officers flight tickets or e-booking confirmation showing a flight out of the country and 20,000 baht in available funds on arrival before they stamp you in. That said, Thai immigration enforce these rules completely at random. They might check you, they might not. They almost definitely won't check to see if you have the funds, but they may check for proof of onward flights. Based on our experiences of late, unless you look like a hobo, you won't have a problem. More likely if flying to Thailand on a one-way ticket, the issue you will have is with the airline taking you asking for proof of exit upon check-in. More and more airlines now refusing to carry you to Thailand in the first place if you can't produce a valid visa or proof of onward flights when checking in at your departure airport. Simply confirming you have an exit flight, but 'don't have the details with you' normally works, so does a little bit of text forging on an e-ticketing confirmation just to pacify zeal check-in staff. If entering Thailand on an open-jaw, the airline won't give you a hard time on check-in.
And lastly once in Thailand a short extension to the 30 day visa exemption may only be granted for a fee, but they aren't a God given right despite what you may read or hear elsewhere.
2. The second option is a tourist visa (in advance) valid for 60 days. You can also buy double and triple entry tourist visas, with each entry also entitling you to 60 days. Tourist visas can be extended for varying lengths, at varying number of times and varying costs.
You'll be fined if you overstay any visa. To extend free of charge, leave the country, turn around and re-enter Thailand under the 30 day visa exemption rule mentioned above. A plus point of this method is that proof of onward flights are never checked for at land borders, so you can walk back in no questions asked. However, time limits govern how long you're permitted to stay in Thailand under the visa exemption rule, with the current limit being a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period starting when you first arrive. In the past 18 months, Thai authorities have tightened up visa requirements and even changed the regulations considerably and they'll probably be changing again soon, with the advent of the new collaboration visas with other SE Asian countries. Whereas Thailand is far from difficult when it comes to visas, it is also wise to check what the situation and read the comprehensive info here on a Thai consulate web page.
Dangers: Some petty theft and druggings, but not that common, loads of little scams and crimes of opportunity due to large tourist numbers. Theft of passports and credit cards has been reported as a major problem, but then again so have lady boys! Bangkok can be a little painful with plenty of individuals feeding you misinformation in order to steer you to a shop or other opportunity to make money. So always double check information. It's more of an annoyance rather than a danger.
The southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla have been considered unsafe due to militant activities, explosions and government fire fights. So check the situation before you go and don't hang around any hot spots unnecessarily.
Typical tourist trail: Bangkok to Chang Mai (return to) Bangkok to the Samui archipelago to Ko Tao or Phuket to Malaysia. There are some good sample popular itineraries and a lot of good information on travelfish's Thailand page.
Money: ATMs - which are very plentiful (but will always charge a fee on-top of that from your own bank). Any hard currency cash or travellers cheques change easily in larger towns and major traveller destinations.
Getting around: Thailand has great trains and buses - cheap, fast and simple to use. Moving around key tourist destinations in Thailand could not be easier. In any areas that sees a substantial amount of travellers you will see outside travel agents, cafes, bars, guesthouse, etc. boards listing numerous destinations, prices and departure times. Everyone seem to be selling transport (as an agent) in tourist hotspots.
Should you want to avoid paying the agents commission, tickets are easy to arrange directly from the train or bus stations, it is not too hard. It is worth noting that given the ease you can take/arrange transport it is no wonder that the destination names always seen on the 'where to go next' boards are so developed and popular. In fact if you really wanted to get the best from Thailand and not run into thousands Danes, Russians, Brits, etc. - you might consider the boards as destinations best avoided!
To move around cheaply, see less other travellers and travel on a limited budget take 'fan' buses on short to medium journeys - if you leave early in the morning, it's normally cool enough. Plus third class trains - these take a bit longer than AC buses but are great and a cheap way to move. For example: Khorat to Bangkok costs B50 on ordinary third class train (6 hours), B78 on ordinary bus (5 hours) or B139 on AC bus (4 hours).
Be aware: To reach many tourist destinations you can get privately organised bus and minibus transport. Agents who sell tickets will tell you what you want to hear re: length of trip, quality and number of passengers. Most notorious are Bangkok to Siem Reap buses. Think about it; if your ticket is costing half the price of a public service ticket, you're going to get at least 50% quality and a pretty shit journey - be warned.
To and from Bangkok Airport: Since Bangkok is a major stop over it is worth mentioning that airport buses run from 0430 to 0030 and the fare is about 150B per person. There is a directly regular bus to the Khao San Rd and plenty of information and advice at the airport to point you in the right direction. This is the best option if going to the Khao San Rd and you'll meet others while waiting or on the bus.
There is now a nice new high speed train from the airport. This is a great option to get into town, but it won't take you directly to the Khao San Rd. If you want to take the train, better to jump on the non-express line (the City Line) and get out at Phaya Thai (if on the Express line it is further away and just get out at the last stop). Here are the details and route. From there jump in a taxi (driver understand 'Khao San' better than 'Khao San Road'. It is almost certain that there will be someone else on the train going that way and don't be afraid to ask to share. It's not far to Backpacker central. A taxi will be metered, a tuk-tuk you'll need to barging for.
Late at night a taxi is best from the airport (better with someone else), ignore any touts inside the terminal. Leave the terminal and follow the signs for 'Taxi' to get to the rank (it's really close from the exit - you will see it from the terminal door), walk over and tell the attendant where you are going. They'll write it down on a form and give it to you. Make sure the meter is on and off you go. If a driver refuses to put the meter on, or turns it off, tell him to take you back to the rank, or just get out and get another taxi - be firm. You will however have to pay the motorway toll if you travel into the city by this route, so don't be surprised if you are asked for some cash halfway through your journey. It's worth noting that the info and tourist advice desk in the airport is first class and if in doubt they can help with many matters.
Motorbikes: Can be rented in any larger town and with care, are a great way to tour country routes.
Trains: Are cheap, easy, comfortable during the day and night (if a little cold at times) and let you see the country as you experience it, for more details see Thai Train System Explained
Internal and international (local) flights: Air Asia and other carriers have a good and very reasonable network to KL, Chiang Mai, Penang, Siem Reap, Hanoi and beyond. Internal flights are equally pretty cheap. you can book yourself on the internet.
Locals: Generally nice, always smiling, but can get a little tourist-weary. The Thai are a proud race and this can result in some frosty behaviour toward travellers who don't show respect to it or to all tourists in general by some.
Other travellers: Increasingly many package holiday makers and those in early teens- almost every type of traveller it seems ends up in Bangkok at some time! Most notable however are the number of Danes and Scandinavians. Around the southern beach hot spots expect at some point to run into some of the worst types of independent travellers. As with India and Brazil, you can expect a large number of young Israeli and Russian travellers. Also expect to see a large number of (young and old) guys with Thai girls.
Tourist factor: 9/10
Communications: Slightly expensive international call centres. Good internet on the mainland and ADSL connections can even be found on popular islands such as Ko Pha Ngan. Post good value - best to send parcels at the 'slow air' (SAL) rate which is half the price of regular Air and usually take much less than the 1.5 months delivery time announced, in particularly if you register it (an additional B25) and put an airmail sticker on the package.
URL: Liked Travel Fish - it's a great resource with good FAQ for first timers. Also see http://www.thai-experience.org for festival dates and volunteering. There is actually so much great information on the web regarding Thailand that it can't all be included here.
TV: New release movies played in cafes and restaurants. If paying a little more for a room (mid-range standard), a TV with numerous international satellite channels is fairly common in tourist centres.
Food: Great, but can be very spicy - eat off the street for best food. Banana pancakes may well be the tastiest food on earth. Seafood excellent.
Vegetarians: No problem. If unsure you can always ask for 'Buddhist' meals or use the magic word. The magical word is 'jeh' (said like 'jay' quickly). As in 'song Pad Thai jeh' - two vegetarian pad thais.
Guidebook: Various, available in Bangkok (but not cheaper than at home) No recommendations, you don't really need one on the beaten track. Plus both the Rough Guide and LP are far from brilliant. Click here for a good list of Thai links.
What to take: You might hear a lot about taking your own padlock. The reason for this is that the doors of some hotel rooms, normally the cheaper ones, lock only with a padlock. Take one for sure, but you will find that most budget places insist that you use their padlock (don't lose the key - they will charge you the earth). You can always chain your bag to the bed, but if the place really feels that dodgy, stay elsewhere. See the what to pack section for all the normal recommendations.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Very limited, some beggars and touts. Anyone with half a brain will tell you not to buy drugs off tuk-tuk drivers or gems off their best mate/uncle.
Women alone: Lone female travellers are fairly common. Be careful at night and in bars where drink drugging have occurred (Ko Phan Ngan has the current reputation).
Brunei: is essentially a fairly expensive day side-trip, if in East Malaysia.
Papa New Guinea: where the Banana Pancake Trail crowds really thin out, a great alternative destination, but difficult to get around. Port Moresby has a bad reputation and is not inviting. No onward overland transport to Australia.
One of the best sources of planning information in Asia is Trailblazer's 'Asia Overland', although the Cambodia chapter is very out-of-date. However there is a new version of this book out that focuses just on South East Asia. It is a fantastic guide made up of hand-drawn maps packed with great information. It's called South-East Asia: A Graphical Guide and is by the same author as Asia Overland - Mark Elliott, however it is now also out of print, but check Amazon and similar as second-hand copies do float around.
For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
"A short pen is better than a long memory"